Back during its heyday, in the early part of the 20th century, Budapest consolidated with Vienna to form the sophisticated joint capital of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, but under five decades of communist rule, many of their infrastructures fell into utter dilapidation. In a span of two centuries, the “Queen of the Danube” has successfully picked up and turned herself into a charming fusion of art nouveau, baroque and neoclassical masterpieces, rattling trams, bustling roads, lush landscapes, and endearing parks. The years of tough transformation have made Budapest emerge victoriously as a working city without losing its gritty edge.
Whatever you’re looking for, be it dramatic neoclassical buildings or open spaces, thermal spas or fine dining, museums or theaters, Budapest has more than enough to keep you occupied. This travel guide will walk you through them.
Best Time to Go
One of the best times to go to Budapest is during its springtime, from April to May. Sure, hotel rates and airfare are somehow expensive during this season, but it is when Budapest is at its most beautiful, with flowers blooming and trees restoring their verdancy. Autumn, which falls from September to November, is another good time to take a Budapest tour. Although the days are shorter and the nights are colder, autumn is perfect for those who dislike walking arm to arm with the crowd. The mild weather makes touring very conducive, and the sights of leaves turning from green to gold never fail to amaze even the most seasoned of tourists.
Unlike other countries, it is not recommended to visit Budapest during summer (June to August,) since the temperatures usually get very high. Some venues do not offer air-conditioning, and with the intense heat, attractions such as the Opera House temporarily halt operations.
Budapest prides itself in being a “walking city.” You can easily roam around the city by foot, as long as you have a map in tow. However, if you’re too tired to walk, you can always choose from the numerous options of public transportation in the city. Three metro (subway) lines are available, with stations that stop at the city’s attractions and top hotels. Blue buses and trolley buses are widely available as well. “E” buses are express buses that do not alight at all stops; “A” buses on the other hand, have shorter routes. “900” buses offer night services. A great thing about Budapest transportation is that it only uses one form of ticketing system. If you want to explore the city for the entire day, your best choice is the one-day travel card (USD 7.30). Three-day passes are available as well for USD 18.
As the “Paris of the East,” Budapest features numerous events that attract tourists from all corners of the globe. Here are some of the city’s most vibrant and colorful festivities:
1) Budapest Spring Festival
One of the things that make Budapest a hit among tourists during springtime is the city’s famed Spring Festival. Celebrated every March, this 2-week event is comprised of dances, concerts, operas and dramas in the city’s major theaters and halls. Budapest’s museums also host new temporary exhibitions during this festivity.
2) Sziged Summer Festival
If you do not mind the scorching heat that the Budapest summer brings along, then you will enjoy visiting the city during the Sziged Summer Festival. Held in the capital of the Great Plain from June to August, this lively festival is a great treat for tourists with its wide variety of rock operas, ballets and open-air theaters.
3) “Budafest” Summer Opera and Ballet Festival
As it has been said, most of Budapest’s halls are closed during summer because of the intolerable heat. However, you can still catch Budapest’s finest performers during the “Budafest” Summer Opera and Ballet Festival, held every year from July to August. Sweating aside, you will definitely enjoy the classic performances staged at the Hungarian State Opera House.
4) Island Festival
Known as Hungary’s version of Woodstock, the Island Festival is held annually every August. From being a relatively-unknown music event that started in 1994, the Island Festival is now one of the most popular festivities in the continent, drawing tourists from Europe and other parts of the globe. The Island Festival showcases talents from all disciplines of music – from folk music to world music – that is why it has earned a cult following throughout the years.
5) Budapest Art Week
Traditionally started every September 25, Budapest’s Art Week exhibits the best musical and dance performances from the country’s finest performers. The 3-week festivity, celebrated annually during the autumn season, features presentations that run in the city’s biggest performance halls.
Things to Do
There’s definitely more than one way to explore Budapest. Whether you are a first-time visitor, or learning to call the place your home, here is a list of fun things for you to do in Paris of the East.
1) Take a dip in Budapest’s best baths.
Budapest has been known as a spa city with hot springs gurgling up from the deep and with a bathing culture that dates back all the way to the ancient Roman times. Soaking yourself up in any of Budapest’s historic baths should be on top of your to-do list. It’s a fun way to soothe yourself after a long day of touring the city, and enjoying the thermal water’s healing benefits is a yummy icing on the cake.
2) Cross the Chain Bridge, the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest.
Don’t get your feet too weary, for you still have a mission to accomplish– cross the chain bridge! This magnificent suspension bridge connecting Buda and Pest is one of the country’s greatest sources of pride. Flanked by two stone lions on both ends, the Chain Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks both in Europe and its very own Hungary, often compared to New York’s Brooklyn Bridge.
3) Take a stroll from Andrassy Ave to Heroes’ Square and understand why Budapest is dubbed the Paris of the East.
Andrassy Ave and Heroes’ Square are Budapest’s versions of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Élysées, both speaking a poignant message of the heroism of the people who shielded the country and lost their lives during the Holocaust.
4) Explore Óbuda, the oldest and lesser known part of Budapest
If you’re a history buff, you may just get tempted to take yourself to Obuda, the number III district of Budapest that had a crucial role in its history right from the Roman Era up until the modern days. Although Obuda may seem to be a typical residential area at first glance, it abounds with attractions that are worth seeing and well-preserved relics gleaned from the Roman period to Baroque bourgeois mansions.
5) Treasure hunt at the Ecseri Flea Market.
If you are a master of the art of haggling and don’t mind owning second-hand items at crazy cheap prices, then don’t head back home without going to the Ecseri Flea Market. Budapest’s rattletrap paradise offers a cavalcade of second-hand and new items. Here, you will find the most antique tables, and many funny and often bizarre fanciful objects that the owners themselves will offer to you.
6) Invade the zip lines, walls, and labyrinths at Challengeland.
Take your kids and enjoy bonding moments at Budapest’s most notable rope adventure park. Referred to as Kalandpalya by the locals, the Challengeland is situated in a heavily-wooded region, in district XII. It is known for its paths of different levels of difficulty, challenging walls, and natural topography that allows its adventure seekers to face a tough test of energy, stamina, and balance.
Sights and Attractions
A mix of the old and the new – this is what you can expect in Budapest. From royal palaces to giant Ferris wheels, the city has a lot to offer for its discerning tourists. For a memorable trip, here are the city’s finest attractions that you need to visit:
1) Castle District
Located west of the Danube River is the Castle District, a place known for its medieval scenery. While most of the city is dressed in modern facades, the district remains true to its origins with its cobblestone streets and strongholds. The lack of cars within the premises (they are not allowed) also contribute to an old-world feel. Admission is free.
Address: Szent Gyorgy Ter
2) Hungarian National Gallery
If you are already inside the Castle District, do not forget to visit the Hungarian National Gallery, which is housed inside the Buda Castle. The museum features fine art, with some dating back to the middle ages. Admission to permanent exhibitions costs USD 5.50, while access to all displays only costs USD 13.
Address: Buda Castle, Szent Gyorgy Ter
3) Thermal Baths
As lasting influences left by the Turks, these baths keep their toasty temperatures because of natural thermal heating. A trip to the city’s famed baths – such as Szechenyi or Gellert – is the perfect way to end a tiring tour day. Day passes cost about USD 13 to USD 21.
4) Fisherman’s Bastion
As one of Castle Hill’s finest infrastructures, Fisherman Bastion proves to be one of the best monuments in all of the country. Designed by Frigyes Schulek, the Bastion once played host to fishermen who protected the capital from invading Turks, hence the name. The lower levels are free, but if you want a more magnificent view of the city, you need to pay USD 600 to get into the bastion’s upper turrets and terraces.
Address: Szentháromság tér
5) Heroes’ Square
As one the city’s most illustrious landmarks, Heroes Square was constructed to commemorate the memory of the brave souls who freed the country from its numerous invaders. Must-see landmarks within the square include the Millennium Monument and the sculptures of the 7 chieftains who are said to have founded the country. Entrance is free of charge.
Address: City Park
Where to Eat
If you want to truly immerse yourself in Budapest’s beautiful culture, then you need to try out its great restaurants! For a fun lunch or dinner with your family or friends, make sure to visit any of the following top-rated bistros in Budapest:
1) Kisbuda Gyongye Restaurant
The name, which translates to “Pearl of the Small Buda,” truly lives up to the expectations with its excellent traditional Hungarian fares. Headed by TV Chef Peter Buday, the restaurant offers old-world ambience and main courses that cost as low as USD 14. The restaurant space might be quite small, but its food proves to be enormous in flavor.
Address: Kenyeres Utca 34
2) Menza Restaurant
Menza emits the classical 80’s to 90’s vibe, paired up with its tasteful Hungarian dishes. While the restaurant is best for hungry tourists, it is also a good spot for those who wish to unwind, given its long list of cocktails and wine offerings. With entrees that cost below USD 9, you are sure to have a full stomach (and a full wallet still) at Menza.
Address: Liszt Ferenc Ter 2
3) 21 Magyar
Are you up for some fine dining? Then better call in for reservations at the swanky 21 Magyar restaurant. This bistro, which is housed in the beautiful Buda Castle, offers traditional Hungarian dishes with a modern twist. Apart from its exquisite eats, 21 Magyar also offers a comprehensive list of wines from the country’s best wineries. Entrees are pricier than its counterparts, with the menu ranging from USD 13 to USD 22.
Address: Fortuna Utca 21
4) Alabardos Restaurant
If you are looking for a romantic restaurant where you can have dinner with your partner, then the Alabardos Restaurant is what you are looking for. Housed in a gothic, four-century-old edifice, the restaurant offers a lovely ambience and classical Hungarian delicacies. Live classical music is played every night, which proves invaluable if you plan on proposing! While entrees cost about USD 22 a pop, its romantic ambience will surely get you the “Yes” you are hoping for.
Address: Orszaghaz Utca 2
5) Kadar Etkezde
For the best Hungarian eats that will not burn a hole in your pocket, Kadar Etkezde is the top choice for tourists and locals alike. Jewish tourists should be wary though! While the restaurant might be located in the Old Jewish Quarter, the menu is non-Kosher. Entrees cost less than USD 7.
Address: Klauzal ter 9
Budapest’s Best Accommodations
Touring around Budapest is a tiring feat, especially with the many monuments and landmarks lined around the city. So if you want to get a good night’s sleep and recharge your batteries for another day of navigating the capital, then better make reservations at Budapest’s best hotels:
1) Lavish Lifestyle: Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal
Be treated like a Hungarian Royal at the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal, one of the city’s best luxury accommodations. You will find yourself transported back in time in this posh hotel with its ornate decorations and old-world interiors. As home to many notable guests, the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal’s claim to fame are many: its’ beautiful rooms and lovely thermal bath/spa, to name a few. Standard rooms cost about USD 183 a night. Presidential suites can cost as much as USD 5425! (updated 2020).
Address: Erzsébet körút 43
2) Historic Haven: Hotel Pest
Take part in Budapest’s colorful history by booking a room at the recently-restored Hotel Pest. As one of the oldest buildings in the capital, this hotel can make you feel like you are back in the olden days, when life was simple and cellphones were non-existent. With its beautifully-designed rooms, you will definitely have a delightful stay at the famous Hotel Pest. Rates range from USD 145 to USD 152 (updated 2020).
3) Boutique Bet: Hotel Zara / Continental
With its central location and proximity to the Danube, Hotel Zara proves to be the top choice amongst trippers in search of a beautiful boutique hotel. Zara is one of the city’s few boutique hotels decorated with chic and intimate interiors. If you want a modern place to sleep in, rather than one of the historic ones that dot the city, then Zara is the best place for you. Rates start at USD 116.
Address: Vaci Street
4) B&B: Hotel Beatrix
If you want to get away from the hurly burly of Budapest, then it is a must that you stay at the Hotel Beatrix. Located far away from the metro, the hotel is more of a sanctuary with its lively fishpond and beautiful gardens complete with hammocks and barbecue pits. While Beatrix is very homely, staying at this hotel means that you should rent a car, since most attractions are situated several miles away. Rooms range from USD 50 to USD 117.
Address: Széher Way 3
5) Budapest Backpacker: Green Bridge Hostel
If you are short on funds, you do not have to worry in sleeping in a broken-down place. For as low as USD 21 per night, the Green Bridge Hostel can give you the simple comforts of life. Apart from its cheap rooms, the hostel is also located near the Danube River and the Gellert Spa, making it a popular choice amongst tourists on a tight budget.
Address: Molnar u. 22-24
Historic buildings and magnificent museums – the fusion of old with the new makes Budapest a perfect city for travelers. There are so many memories to make in this beautiful city, so do not delay and book your Hungarian vacation today!
Budapest comes with a few stately monikers, each of which will tell you the unique ways in which it beguiles every traveler. As home to a number of major attractions in Eastern Europe, such as the most expansive thermal water system in the world, the first underground railway in the whole European continent, and the largest synagogue in Europe, Budapest has made Hungary the land of fulfilled promises– promises to make its visitors’ holiday experience worthwhile and unforgettable.